The dramatic political events of February 2017 left many of us stupefied in Tamil Nadu. J Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of the state until her death in December, was indicted for corruption in the harshest possible words by the Supreme Court. Yet she was, and is still, hailed reverentially as “Amma” and held up as having been blameless by a large section of the citizenry and media, and by her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Each of the factions of the AIADMK that now claims the mantle of leadership appears determined to make Jayalalithaa’s compromised political heritage its own. There has been no moral outrage over the judgment, no reflective remorse from any quarter.
These events have unfolded in the fiftieth year of Dravidian rule in Tamil Nadu. Yet here we are, at this major anniversary, watching a promising political project that appears to have gone awry. To make sense of the present, we must reckon with history, and examine how the Dravidian movement, and the ideology underlying it, has fared in the last half-century.
The Dravidian movement sprang from the efforts of the radical social reformer Periyar, and all parties styling themselves as Dravidian claim descent from his movement and allegiance to his beliefs. In a historical sense, Dravidianism connotes a politics that privileges social justice, opposes caste, promotes a culture of rational debate, and upholds vernacular and regional concerns over all else. In a political sense, though, Dravidianism has had to reckon with the rule of the two Dravidian parties that have taken turns at ruling Tamil Nadu in the last 50 years—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which inaugurated Dravidian rule in the state, and the AIADMK, which has ruled for more of this period than its rival, and holds power today.